It may be too late to search for a wonderful technology that burns coal without CO2 emissions. CCS is still in its infancy – writes Piotr Chmiel, contributor at BiznesAlert.pl.
On March 4 2020 in Ruda Śląska, Angelos Kokkinos, a representative of the US Energy Department presented a “wonderful” zero-emissions coal burning technology – a solution that will “save” coal.
The is yet another “event” in the never-ending series on this topic. Interestingly enough these technologies are always sponsored by the coal lobby. Isn’t this yet another fig leaf used to cover up the demise of coal? For over 13 years the delusion that such a wonderful technology exists has been keeping alive the coal business. The technology itself does exist, but it is not very efficient and nobody knows what to do with the captured CO2. The efficiency of a coal-fired power plant drops from 40 to 30%, which is equal to the effectiveness of plants from mid-20th century. The process of capturing the gas itself requires huge amounts of steam, which necessitates a huge energy expenditure (hence the 10% drop). There is yet another equally important issue – the amount of time it takes to implement the technology. Rebuilding a coal-fired power plant to accommodate the capture technology takes months, if not years. Is it even worth considering turning off a power plant for a year? Another issue is the network of pipelines that will transmit the CO2 to the possible “storage”. What happens to the captured CO2 in the USA? It is pumped into oil fields to improve extraction efficiency.
Another issue that needs to be taken into account is the EU legislation on this topic. In 2009 the European Parliament adopted the CCS Directive. It says that CO2 storage is one of the ways to combat climate change. It also says a lot about the safety and functioning of such storage units. Whereas, in 2013 an EC communiqué was released which talked about the future of capturing and storing carbon dioxide in Europe. Interestingly enough, the EC deemed such process economically justified at a price of EUR 30 for a ton of CO2. It even launched a program called NER300, which financed research on the gas. However, the first commercially viable technology is yet to be invented.
A commercially successful CCS would also cause a stir on the EU ETS market. This kind of system could co-exist with the ETS provided the required CCS certificates would be as valuable as emissions allowances within the ETS scheme, which would have to be withdrawn from the market permanently (because the amount of CO2 captured during the process is known, it would be possible to decrease the number of allowances on the ETS by the same amount).
In 2013 the EU expected that by 2020 about 20 full-scale industrial projects would be up and running. This did not happen. Despite the efforts and support of the EU commercial-scale CCS demonstration projects in the EU are delayed. It remains to be seen what will happen with them in the future. Assuming the projects will come to fruition, the sole delays in introducing CCS will probably increase the costs of lowering emissions in coal- and gas- fired plants in the long term, especially in member states that already heavily rely on fossil fuels.
How does it look in the US? Units launched before 2016 are qualified as using “clean carbon” provided that at least 50% of emissions is captured and sequestered. This requirement is increased to 70% for coal-fired power plants that started operation in 2016 and 2017 and to 90% for units opened after that.
The problem is that the time has run out. Even the US has admitted that a commercially sound technology may become available as late as in 2026/2027. Let’s assume that such a solution would indeed enter the market, where would Poland pump the CO2? We don’t have any oil fields. We would need to conduct public consultations as no-one wants to live near such “storages”.
Additionally, the EU law about allowing such technologies in the Union would have to change. The legislation on the EU ETS system would have to be amended as well. Finally, the time it would take to construct CCS installations and remodel the existing coal and hydrogen power plants would be another hurdle. Would it be doable at least by 2040? We have to bear in mind the EU targets when it comes to CO2 reduction, energy efficiency and increasing renewables participation in energy production for 2030 and 2040, as well as the consequences for not achieving these goals.